Is there any difference between habit and addiction?

The science is discovering there’s very little difference (on a basic level) between a heroin addiction and a rock-solid exercise routine.

Cleanliness Cravings

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the story of how Febreeze went from a total flop to a roaring success. All four aspects of habit were involved:

  1. Trigger
  2. Behaviour
  3. Reward
  4. Craving

The “trigger” they appealed to in the first campaign was a bad smell. They were encouraged by one woman who’s house was plagued by the smell of skunk, wrecking her chances for love (no date lasted past the first home-visit). Febreeze’s astounding technology was able to absorb and nullify smelly particles, and after using several bottles on her living space, the skunk-haunted woman was smell-free, and she was in tears of gratidude as she talked to company’s market researchers.

Problem was, almost all other smelly people didn’t care. And what’s worse, the human brain quickly stops noticing ordinary bad smells like cigarette smoke or wet dog.

Eventually they found a woman who had a perfectly clean and normal smelling house, and she used the spray as a routine to end her cleaning duties.

The “trigger” and “behaviour” was the same either way. Febreeze was only adding to the “reward” of this habit.

The company added a slight perfume to their formula, changed there marketing angle, and in a few weeks their sales were through the roof.

What’s interesting is that customers reported starting to need the Febreeze to feel like the room was clean. One customer admitted to watering down her own perfume and spraying it on the laundry when her Febreeze canister ran empty.

That’s the “craving”. The feeling of loss when the reward is taken away.

Without that, the habit/addiction hasn’t been formed properly.

Exercise Withdrawal Symptoms

In The Finisher’s Formula, Ramit Sethi’s paid course on high-performance, he invited Charles Duhigg to talk about habit formation.

He mentioned something I found very interesting. That people who are habitual exercisers get a physiological reaction if they miss a workout. They feel itchy, twitchy, and more and more desperate to put on their shoes and go for a run.

Exercise has an intrinsic reward baked into it. It increases dopamine in the brain. Just like MDMA, only in much smaller doses.

But if the size of the dopamine hit is the key factor, then why would anyone be an exercise freak, even after only once trying MDMA?

Substances Are Not What Addict You

Morphene is the strongest form of heroin you’ll ever find, and yet, when your granny comes back from weeks in a hospital after a hip replacement, she doesn’t suffer withdrawal. She just gets right off it:

The a Nutshell did an awesome job of summarising.

Dr Carl Hart has done some really interesting research into drug addiction, and found innumerable myths baked into what we’re taught by our culture.

This isn’t to say shooting heroin for fun is a good idea. On the streets, it’s mixed with a load of random substances that you’re putting directly into your veins.

Not smart.

It is to say that the “addictive” substance is not the cause of the addiction. It’s the reward.

The reward could be anything that makes us feel good. It doesn’t have to be a substance that is cooked and disolved and shot in back-alleys, or sold in neat packs of 20 behind the counter.

We can get a “hit”, a rewarding shot of brain chemistry from a huge number of things that don’t have anything to do with physical consumption:

  • Gambling
  • Working out
  • Bar fights
  • Bullying
  • Being a “protector” or a “martyr”
  • Procrastination
  • Video games
  • Movies
  • Even TEDtalks! (I once went through a phase of “using” inspiring TEDtalks like a fix)
  • Work (anyone know a “workaholic”?)
  • Arguments with our significant other (and/or making up after the argument)

The stimulation doesn’t necessarily have to be very pleasant, as long as it’s intense. People can “learn” to get off on pain, and thrill-seekers love to dance with death for fun.


Is this what drives everything we do?

Are all of our repeated behaviours nothing more than little addictions?

#Addiction is Learning

Andrew Hill states that addiction is just learning. Not a special form of learning. It’s just learning. Those who are powerless to their addiction have learned to be powerless. The neural mechanisms are the same.

If addiction is learning, then is learning a behaviour the same as addiction?

Remember the withdrawal-like symptoms regular exercisers feel if they don’t get their “fix”.

Perhaps there literally is no difference between addiction and habit. Drugs give our brains a reward, but so does simply feeling proud of yourself as you look at your clean room. This all suggests that habit formation, and the drivers of our behaviour, are a lot simpler than they might seem.

The Perfect Reward-Punishment Combo for Changing Your Habits

Another little gem from Duhigg during Ramit’s course was that the reward does not have to be related to the behaviour. Sure, humans have the unique ability to make any behaviour intrinsically rewarding, if they like or agree with what the behaviour means about them. However, if you don’t want to spend your workout desperately trying to think about how much of a awesome dude it makes you, you can use ANY reward.

Even chocolate.

That’s right. Do some pressups, and give yourself a square of chocolate afterwards.

Just like giving a dog a treat for following your commands.

You’re essentially training your inner labrador (emotional and behaviour parts of the brain) with your inner human (the conscious planning area).

Now what if you added the other side into the mix?

What if you used a human dog-collar?

Enter Pavlok, the wrist band you can use to shock yourself. Even if you administer the shocks yourself, it’s proven to break bad habits like smoking or eating processed junk.

Perhaps the key to changing our habits is to get over our high view of our humanity, and treat ourselves like the animals we are on the inside.

A reward for good behaviour, a slap for bad behaviour, and pretty soon we’ll have trained ourselves to do whatever it is we aspire to do.